Michael Gibson

Warning. Some of you might find what follows disturbing, in particular Englishy English folk who believe queueing is a holy of hollies. Here is the thing … Each and every queue has not one end but two ends; the ‘express’ end and the ‘philosophical’ end, and you can join any queue at which ever end you choose. Russia taught me this and its brilliant. Here’s why …

I was once a proper English queuer; believing everyone should stand in line, unquestioningly wait their turn, without considering if the queue was the best way to get things done or why it was there at all. It’s like ‘queue communism’, everyone equal in the eyes of the queue and God forbid anyone trying to sneak ahead or beat the system. But then I came to live in Russia and I discovered ‘queue freedom’. My understanding of queues was turned on its head. While some might call it chaos – I could see that in the chaos there was genius. All these years I had been waiting in line, brainwashed in ‘Queue Ideology’, and believing queues were proper, fair and equal. They are anything but, and have even murdered people. Read on …

Firstly, queues really do have two ends; the ‘express’ end at the front and the ‘philosophical’ end at the back, and for good reason. There are days when one is totally stressed, hot and bothered – dashing to make a meeting or about to miss a plane. Of course, you join the ‘express end’. It makes perfect sense, just as a badly injured patient is first to see the doctor in E&A (Emergency & Accident) in a hospital. 

Then there are the calm days when one is happy to wait your turn, so joins the ‘philosophical’ end, and loses oneself in thoughts, dreams or a good book. In fact, as you chill at the back of the queue, the last thing you want are stressed people nearby, disrupting the peace with their rushing and anxiety. They just make everyone at the philosophical end feel anxious too. Much better they go to the ‘express’ end of the queue and take their stress and worry out of the queue, leaving everyone else queuing in peace. 

The world of ‘Queue Optimization’ is richer than just considering which end of the queue to join. Queues have holes and gaps and a bunch of inefficiencies which provide opportunities for quick thinking, queue optimizers to act and if done correctly, increases the efficiency of the queue for the benefit of everyone. 

Think early ISDN modems, developed in the first days of the internet when most people still used hard wired phone lines. The first modems blocked the phone line – either you used the phone or the computer but not both at the same time. But the ISDN modem was cunning, it could connect both simultaneously using a type of queue optimization. Voice calls have massive gaps between words and phrases. The ISDN cleverly pops pieces of computer data into these gaps. At the other end the pieces of computer data are removed and reassembled. Its classic ‘queue optimization’. This can be replicated in the physical world, for example on roads. When a red traffic light changes to green as you approach – its sometimes possible to nip past the waiting cars in a free lane if timed right, without blocking of slowing the waiting cars and increasing the flow of traffic. 

It’s said that a lack of life boats killed people on the Titanic. It’s certainly true there weren’t enough for all aboard – but the lifeboats were found the day after with 473 empty spaces. Therefore, there must have been a bigger problem than a lack of lifeboats. The gallant notion of waiting in line, with the women and children at the front to evacuate first did not help – slowing down lifeboat loading time. Had people ‘queue optimized’ they would have found a way to access those empty spaces, but so strict was the notion of queuing that males trying to access lifeboats before ‘their turn’ were threatened, in some cases lynched and beaten. The ‘wait your turn’ queuing policy did not even help the people it was meant to save. Fifty percent of infants on the Titanic died in the sinking and they were first in line. Clearly queuing killed not just those people waiting at the back of the line – but those at the front too. As I said earlier, a queue has two ends, not just for joining it, but also for those it kills, something that should never be forgotten. Queues have blood on their hands! When we see a queue, we should shiver in horror at the sight and start asking questions! 

So how might queue optimization have worked on the Titanic? Good question – frankly anything would have been better than gallant old fashioned ‘queuing’. It is instructive to look at another disaster – this time with a happy ending, where everyone survived in what is nothing short of a miracle. Indeed, the event became known as the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, when American Airlines flight 1549 ditched on the Hudson river after suffering duel engine failure immediately after take-off. The fact that not a single life was lost is astonishing and many factors contributed to that happy outcome. One interesting fact is that during the evacuation of the sinking aircraft, Captain Sully utilized a form of queue optimization. He instructed some of the healthy young guys – the ones that normally are made to wait at the back of the line – to get off as fast as possible, and to carry out an elderly or infirm passenger (there was at least one person in a wheelchair on flight 1549). What if the Titanic had told the men to board the life boats first but only if carrying a woman or child? The lifeboats would have loaded at twice the speed. Of course, its speculation though anything would have been better on that fateful night!

Queue optimization can be applied in day to day life, other than sinking ships and planes. Cuba is a land of queues and a good place for a spot of practice. I found one particularly pointless queue for Wi-Fi cards. These can be purchased only in the post office with a registration process similar to obtaining a visa! So, every post office had a massive queue of travelers waiting to get cards and here was an optimization opportunity. Each person registering for one or two Wi-Fi cards was wasting time, so we organized our queues into groups – one person registered on behalf of four to five others and purchased 15-20 cards for the rest. Our queues for Wi-Fi cards were four times faster. But fascinatingly, people resign themselves to queuing rather than engage in creative thinking to challenge it.

Traffic is hopelessly inefficient, and cars follow each other blindly into queues. Lorries going up hills or yellow Moscow cabs are like voices calls on old copper phone lines. On occasions I find myself getting out of the car and even directing traffic – famously in an underground car park in central Moscow where drivers could not see all available exits and formed a ridiculous queue to use one exit blocking the others. Standing in the right position I could direct the cars to the other exits, and we were all out in a third of the time. Queue Optimization takes commitment!

There is research that suggests queues are not the optimal means of using resources and should be rethought. Professor Lars Peter Osterdal of the University of South Denmark, has experimented with different queuing systems at airport check in, and discovered that the ‘last-come-first-served’ was more efficient than the regular ‘first in line’queue. The problem is it’s against people’s intuition about fairness, and everyone needs to know the new queuing ‘rules’ but there is much to be gained by asking if there might be a better way.

Had I not come to Russia I would never have thought to question the holy sanctuary of queueing. When I first arrived in the early nineties, just after the fall of communism, I was met by a very different approach to queuing by people who had a lot of experience. ‘Queue Optimization’ recognizes that each queue has the opportunity to be more efficient, we just need to apply our creativity and our energy (should you need to direct traffic yourself), and crucially we must challenge old beliefs. As always with Russia – it’s a land that continually opens our eyes.                                          

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